The recent announcement by Fidel Castro that he relinquishes the role of President of Cuba is an event many never thought would happen. As is reported in the media, Fidel Castro has survived ten American Presidents that have all attempted his demise, overthrow or even death. If you want to count leadership, Castro has survived four Popes and the fifth Benedict XVI is presented with a great opportunity. As one of the last vestiges of hard line and Cold-Age Communism Cuba is ready to restore diplomatic relations with the world. Efforts of papal diplomacy and negotiation were in place during the pontificate of John-Paul II. The Catholic Church in Cuba has alive and flourishing, even when suppressed since the maiden voyages of Columbus in 1492. Now Benedict XVI has the right opportunity to accomplish in Cuba what John-Paul II achieved in Eastern Europe. That is the restoration of the Catholic Church in Cuba and a more prominent role in all of Central and South America.

With the developments this week regarding Castro, the Holy See has a real chance to establish not only stronger diplomatic ties with this floundering Communist country, but motivation to increase Church presence once again on the entire island. During the pontificate of John-Paul II, the Archbishop of Havana was raised to the College of Cardinals that alone marked the beginning of a restored initiative by the Church to campaign and grow its influence in the Central and South American areas. With the assumption of Fidel’s Castro’s brother remaining in control of the government, and because of his advancing age, the restoration of a strong Catholic Church in Cuba is frankly a “ripe-moment” for Vatican-Latin America relations.

Over the past 20 years or so the climate has at times been strained between the Vatican and Cuba, in part because of the oppressive human rights violations committed by the Castro junta, the spread and influence of liberation theology among Latin American cultures and the inability of Catholicism to mount a social and political attack against the incumbent regime. However, in light of the continued economic oppression that is widespread on the island, and the new governments willingness to discuss changes in politics and culture, Rome has a new Rubicon River which to cross. The Cardinal Archbishop of Havana has consistently maintained the Catholic presence on the island community. Now the time to evangelize, catechize and normalize relations between the Church and government is here. It appears that the Holy See welcomes this change in leadership in a prayerful hope of optimism with the transfer of power to a new leader. The Holy See has been cautiously optimistic in recognizing the developments on the island nation, but surely perceives an opportunity that will provide restoration of Church property, development of trade with Cuba, increased presence of Catholic clergy and institutions and perhaps the inevitable lifting of the trade embargo with the United States that has crippled the development of the Cuban economy.

The Catholic Church needs to act in a positive and decisive manner on behalf of restoring the potential of a democratic society in Cuba. As an institution, it has quite a bit to gain by normalization of Church/Cuba relations and marks a significant opportunity towards religious conversion in the Benedict school of theology. Underlying the entire chain of events is the papal mandate of Benedict XVI, which includes deeper understanding and dialogue between the Church and opposing cultures and societies. The Holy See should work diligently towards a restoration of religious fervor to Church teachings on this long neglected island. One reason is because it is the right course of action for the Holy See…develop and deepen the mysteries of faith based on the Gospel of love and renewal. Secondly, the island is critical to launching a wider catechesis and evangelization effort in the Central and South American world because it offers such a deeply established Church that just needs revitalization and restoration. Cuba because of its location presents the Church with a base of operations for religious, social and political agendas that will influence a growing Central and South American Church of significant Latino history and culture. The opening of normal relations with Cuba is as significant as the foundation of Solidarity in Poland during John-Paul’s pontificate. For Benedict, Cuba is an opportunity to restore Vatican influence and Church programs throughout the central and southern American hemisphere.

The restoration of the Catholic Church in Cuba presents the Holy Father a chance to welcome home to a beleaguered society that has been spiritually and materially deprived for over 40 years. The Church should see the Cuban situation as one that clearly shows the always-present opportunity for a people, a culture and a nation towards faithful conversion. The seeds of a nascent and free Cuban society are planted. Now the leadership and guidance of the Holy Spirit, through Benedict presents a chance for a new Church presence in the restored New World and announcing spiritual freedom to an island emerging from Communist atheistic darkness.

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author that writes on topics that affect the Catholic Church world wide. He writes a daily column: on Catholic matters. He can be reached at

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